Special Report: Buried by the System?

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A former funeral home director has filed a federal lawsuit against the state claiming he was unfairly buried by the system.

Carlos A. Howard is a familiar name in Norfolk, and back in 1995 became a trendsetter when he began selling caskets online on his website carlosahowardfuneralhome.com. Today such a website wouldn’t be noteworthy, but in 1995 it was the beginning of what we now know as Electronic Commerce, commonly written as E-Commerce or e-commerce. Howard says he was one of the first to practice this by selling coffins in cyberspace.

You can still see the online ad. The commercial begins, “Do you think you paid too much for your last funeral needs? You probably did.” Howard made big money selling caskets online. His customers were mostly lower-income consumers shopping for less expensive funeral services. “I was selling caskets at $200 over cost. It was model e-commerce, and today all your block stores use it,” explained Howard. He was a businessman before his time.

When you look at the awning at 436 W. 35th Street the words Carlos A. Howard Funeral Home are still there, but someone has spray painted over the words with black paint. Perhaps that is symbolic of the last 21 years Carlos Howard has spent trying to get back what once was his.

Howard changed the way funeral services do business, and his selling caskets cheap online cut into profit margins in the industry that Howard’s claims started to attack him.

A 1997 letter from a funeral director in Michigan, included in court proceedings reads, “I quote my client a price of $7,500. They showed me Carlos Howard listing the same casket at $200 over cost at $3,921. This hurts my business; I am very upset with this unprofessional, unethical behavior.” To that Howard responds, “Yes, I was giving fair prices for funeral services.”

Howard’s online commercial drives home that point, “See how these families saved with Carlos A. Howard Funeral Home.” Howard says, “You have a casket for $100 dollars, and I mark it up $200 to $300, but the others mark it up $900 to $1000.”

There’s another letter from one of the largest casket distributors in America informing Howard they will no longer sell him caskets because he “sells caskets on the internet.”

Howard says when local law enforcement and Virginia State Police raided his funeral home in 1997, at the direction of the Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, the state was sending a message. “They wanted to get me anyway they knew how,” Howard said.

In 1998, a judge acquitted Howard of arranging funerals without a license, which is a felony. It was a clear victory for Howard and a huge setback for the Board. “Judge Morrison told the Board and the State Attorney General ‘this never would have happened if you had given Mr. Howard a fair hearing when he requested it,'” recalled Howard.

From 1998-2011 it was business as usual at Carlos A. Howard Funeral Home. In October 2011 a Funeral Inspection Report shows Howard’s Funeral Home is in complete compliance.

Three months later, in January 2012, more trouble emerged. The Board suspended Howard’s license without prior notice. The order of Summary Suspension was immediate without any hearing. It states since Howard is a “substantial danger to public health or safety it warrants this action and orders…funeral services are hereby suspended.”

2012 Notice of Formal Hearing

Howard claims his license suspension before a hearing is a violation of his Constitutional Rights to 14th Amendment due process, “I have a constitutional right to exercise my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
To fight this Summary Suspension in 2012 Howard filed a federal lawsuit which is now pending. The lawsuit is filed against the Board and its members at the time. One of the members still on the Board today is Junius Williams of Portsmouth, who refused to return our phone calls.

Carlos Howard v. Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers

The Board alleged Howard transferred the remains of Khalief Thorpe to Philadelphia in “poor condition and/or improperly labeled.” Howard has always denied any wrongdoing on his part in the body transfer. “There were no liquids spilling, but they were always going to believe anyone who was anti-me,” Howard says.

The most disturbing claim by the Board was that Howard handed over a box to a Philadelphia Funeral Service to be given to Thorpe’s family. They said it implied the box contained personal effects, when, in fact, the box contained, according to the State Board, “the intestines and other organs of the deceased.” Howard denies it all, “It is completely false. I had the person’s name on it marked with ‘bio-hazard tags and it had the word ‘viscera’ (Intestines) on it.”

10 On Your Side interviewed a family member of Khalief Thorpe. His Aunt, Christine Austin-Williams, says she was in charge of the body for the family while Thorpe’s body was in Hampton Roads. She claims no family members here or in Philadelphia ever saw any internal organs in a box. “It simply isn’t true. The remains never went to the family. No family member in Philadelphia ever contacted me and said that the box went to the family.”

The Funeral Board did not believe that and after voting unanimously 7-0 decided to “continue the suspension of the funeral service provider license of Carlos A. Howard… for not less than 6 months, a monetary penalty of $12,500 to be paid in full before reinstatement can occur. Upon reinstatement, Mr. Howard cannot serve as a Manager of Record for one year from the date of reinstatement.”

Howard appealed the Board’s decision to Norfolk Circuit Court which is required for decisions made by State Boards. The court upheld the Board’s decision stating that was “supported by substantial evidence in the record.”

March 2012 Formal Administrative Hearing

Howard’s attorney at the time, Andy Protogyrou, thinks Carlos Howard has a good heart, and cares about the people for whom he provided services. He also says Howard has been too controversial, rubbed the wrong people the wrong way, and at times became his own worst enemy, “These industries are managed very closely by the State. When you are under that type of microscope outspokenness doesn’t bode well for you in the end. It can’t,” said Protogyrou.

Howard is also battling medical issues. He blames the stress of the last 21 years for giving him serious health issues. Today, Howard takes 11 medications for congestive heart failure, and pulmonary issues. “This one medicine is $900,” Howard told us. “Somedays there are days I can’t get out of bed because of pain and stress.”

10 On Your Side asked Howard why he won’t just pay the $12,500 fine, get a Manager of Record for one year, open a new funeral home business and move on? He says, “Even if I paid $12,500 in effect it is an admission I did something wrong.”

The long and winding road for Carlos A. Howard is not over yet. The funeral home has been foreclosed, and it’s unsure whether or not current codes will allow a new funeral home to open there.

10 On Your Side tried repeatedly for this story to get comment from the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, Board members who dealt Howard his suspensions, and even reached out to new Board members who are not listed on the lawsuit. Only two board members returned our calls; both said they had no comment.
Diane Powers, the Director of Communications for The Virginia Department of Health Professionals sent an email stating, “Your electronic and voice mail messages were received. The Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers respectfully declines your request for an interview and statement.

“The confidentiality provisions of Section 54.1-2400.2 of the Code of Virginia prevent health regulatory boards from addressing public questions related to disciplinary proceedings, based upon the strict confidentiality of reports, information, or records received or developed by a board as part of the investigative or disciplinary process.

As such, Board Orders speak for themselves and are available online under Case Decisions at http://www.dhp.virginia.gov/enforcement/cdecision/default.asp.